The Dangerous Final Months of Covid

Wednesday

My wife took my 95-year-old mother to get the Covid vaccine the other day—in our Tennessee county it’s supposedly available to those over 75—but the school parking lot was full when they arrived, with an even longer line of cars waiting to get in. A cop informed them that there were only 300 doses, which meant that it was pointless to join the line.

All of this was sparked by an e-mail that some received and others didn’t. In other words, distribution here is haphazard. Meanwhile, American Covid deaths have passed 350,000 and continue to climb. We’ll be closing in on 400,000 by Inauguration Day.

Because I’ve been reading Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dodd mysteries, many set during World War I and World II, I think of those people who died in the final days before the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice. It seems a particularly cruel twist that people should go down when the finish line is in sight. Wilfred Owen, author of England’s greatest anti-war poems, died while fighting on Nov. 4. The groundbreaking French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, weakened by an injury, died of the Spanish flu on Nov. 9.

In American Agent, Maisie interviews a woman whose husband died in October, 1918, the day before he was due to come home on leave. The woman uses the finish line analogy as Maisie commiserates:

“I am so sorry—how very sad. So close to the Armistice.”

“Just before the finish line. I am inclined to think he was so excited about coming home he stopped paying attention, as if he’d imagined it so many times, he was already here, so he became careless.

I think of Covid as I think of World War I: so many people died who didn’t have to. Just as history has lacerated those who got us into that war, it will deal severely with those who botched the Covid response.

As for the rest of us, there’s more need for care now than there ever was. This is no time to let up.

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Looking for Non-Existent Voter Fraud

Catherine looks for evidence in Northanger Abbey

Tuesday

Finally—finally!—some Republican legislators are standing up to Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election. After years of tolerating Trump’s empty accusations, they are rediscovering their belief in democracy. Perhaps the recording of the president pressuring Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” more Trump votes was the final straw.

To the few who continue to hold out, especially ringleader senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, I send out the passage in Northanger Abbey where Henry Tilney chastises Catherine for a conspiracy theory she has developed. As a result of reading gothic novels, Catherine suspects General Tilney of having disposed of his wife, to which Tilney responds,

If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

The mere fact that neither party could get away with the kind of fraud that Trump alleges should be enough to end the talk. We too have newspapers and voluntary spies. We too live in a civilized country with laws, and we too have an education system that should have trained us to see through conspiracy theories.

Following Tilney’s lecture, Catherine runs out of the room in tears. In other words, unlike Cruz and Hathey, she is capable of shame. She also profits from the lecture, learning to reject gothic theories and to see through the self-serving claims of those around her.

Tilney is overly optimistic that “our education prepare[s] us for such atrocities” since Cruz and Hawley both attended ivy league schools that pride themselves on teaching critical thinking. I suppose education counts for little, however, if they are simply two cynical opportunists who think that shamelessly selling out their country is a small price to pay for Trump’s supporters supporters. Even Austen’s villains, with the possible exception of Persuasion’s Mr. Eliot, aren’t that base.

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Les Miz and Trump’s Execution Spree

“The Two Widows” – cover detail from L’Oeil de la police (1908)

Monday

Among the adjectives we could use to summarize Trump’s presidency, I propose “cruel” over, say, “chaotic” or “narcissistic.” Cruelty characterizes far too many of the president’s actions, and pundits have observed that, for Trump, “cruelty is the point,” not a byproduct. Editorial Board’s John Stoehr argues that a sadistic streak within a portion of the American electorate may well account for Trump’s cultic popularity.

Early on we saw Trump encourage supporters to beat up protesters, then allow border enforcers to tear children from their parents, then egg on cops to brutalize suspects, then pardon cold-blooded war criminals and rogue police officers. Now, going out as he came in, he and Attorney General William Barr are engaging in an execution spree. In today’s post I look at how Victor Hugo would respond.

As the Washington Post reports,

Federal authorities have executed ten people since getting started in July, making 2020 the first year ever in which the federal government executed more civilian inmates than the states did. In just five months, Mr. Trump oversaw more civilian executions than any other president in the 20th or 21st century. Three more inmates are scheduled to die in January, in the final weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Hugo captures the lure of execution for people like Trump and Barr. Reflecting on the guillotine in Les Misérables, he says that it produces hallucination, taking on a kind of “horrible vitality” of its own. Although death penalty advocates want us to regard it as “an inert bit of mechanism constructed of wood, iron and cords”—in other words, as a neutral and impersonal instrument of justice—it is rather “a vision” that induces “the most mysterious of shivers.” Hugo doesn’t describe these shivers but I suspect they range from thrilling to horrifying, depending on the individual:

In fact, when the scaffold is there, all erected and prepared, it has something about it which produces hallucination. One may feel a certain indifference to the death penalty, one may refrain from pronouncing upon it, from saying yes or no, so long as one has not seen a guillotine with one’s own eyes: but if one encounters one of them, the shock is violent; one is forced to decide, and to take part for or against. Some admire it, like de Maistre; others execrate it, like Beccaria. The guillotine is the concretion of the law; it is called “vindicte” [retaliation]; it is not neutral, and it does not permit you to remain neutral. He who sees it shivers with the most mysterious of shivers. All social problems erect their interrogation point around this chopping-knife. The scaffold is a vision. The scaffold is not a piece of carpentry; the scaffold is not a machine; the scaffold is not an inert bit of mechanism constructed of wood, iron and cords.

Trump thrills at having the power to willy-nilly mete out life (pardons) and death. In other words, he is no aloof judge impartially administering justice but rather a man who lives for retaliation. Perhaps the death engines could be seen as impersonal if justice were truly blind, although even here I think Hugo would have his doubts. In any event, with Trump we are witnessing executions where the “scaffold is the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood.” The scaffolds erected at Trump’s orders appear to be “possessed of will, … as though taking part in what is going on”:

It seems as though it were a being, possessed of I know not what somber initiative; one would say that this piece of carpenter’s work saw, that this machine heard, that this mechanism understood, that this wood, this iron, and these cords were possessed of will. In the frightful meditation into which its presence casts the soul the scaffold appears in terrible guise, and as though taking part in what is going on. The scaffold is the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood; the scaffold is a sort of monster fabricated by the judge and the carpenter, a spectre which seems to live with a horrible vitality composed of all the death which it has inflicted.

The Biden presidency can’t come soon enough.

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A Light on the Darkling Road

Rubens, Adoration of the Magi

Spiritual Sunday

On Wednesday Christians celebrate the Epiphany, that moment when the world realized (had an epiphany) that God is in the world. George Mackay Brown has a poem that captures the magic, with ice and snow turned into ice swans and snow drops.

Brown appears to be responding to T.S. Eliot’s “The Three Magi,” which sees the journey differently:

There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.

In Brown’s version, by contrast,

They slept among dews.
A dawn lark broke their dream.

For them, at solstice
The chalice of the sun spilled over.

Even when Brown’s magi lose the star—when they fear that all is folly—their faith is rekindled by a fiddler at a fair, a “glim [lantern] on their darkling road,” children bringing apples to their horses. The poem reminds me somewhat of Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” which is about the magical moments experienced upon the journey.

What’s why, when they reach their goal, they unload their lesser treasures at a “midwinter inn.” They unburden themselves of their gold, frankincense and myrrh, having received so much more.

A Calendar of Kings
By George Mackay Brown

They endured a season
Of ice and silver swans.

Delicately the horses
Grazed among the snowdrops.

They traded for fish, wind
Fell upon crested waters.

Along their track
Daffodils lit a thousand tapers.

They slept among dews.
A dawn lark broke their dream.

For them, at solstice
The chalice of the sun spilled over.

The star was lost.
They rode between burnished hills.

A fiddle at a fair
Compelled the feet of harvesters.

A glim on their darkling road.
The star! It was their star.

In a sea village
Children brought apples to the horses.

They lit fires
By the carved stones of the dead.

A midwinter inn.
Here they unload their treasures.

Another George Mackay Brown Epiphany Poem: Brown talks about the magi experiencing moments of dryness and an arduous journey in “Epiphany Poem,” which I’ve written about in “The Star Began Its Singing.”

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Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New

Friday – New Year’s Day

I’ve shared Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ring Out Wild Bells” in the past but feel the need for it again as we bid farewell to what has been the worst year (historically speaking) of my life. And that includes 1968.

The poem is part of In Memoriam at a point when Tennyson is finally becoming reconciled to the death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam—or if not reconciled, at least finding new ways to cope with the loss. His declaration of hope, in other words, is hard earned. Calling for the bells to “ring out the Christ that is to be” is a desire that the love he feels for Hallam spread to all humankind.

The poem undoubtedly influenced Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during an even darker time in America’s history than the present one. In that poem, the horrors of the Civil War cause a momentary despair:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Like Tennyson, however, Longfellow finds cause for hope in “the Christ that is to be”:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Given our current situation, I especially notice in Tennyson’s poem the “old shapes of foul disease” and (here’s looking at you, Mitch) the “narrowing lust of gold.” GOP parsimony on anything other than tax cuts is expressed in “the want, the care, the sin.”

And then there’s “party strife,” “false pride,” “civil slander,” and “spite.” Yes, Tennyson’s poem is as timely as ever.

In their place, he calls for a “larger heart” and “kindlier hand.” We should all be able to embrace that.


Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

2020 is dying in the night. Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

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Post of the Year: Plagues in Literature

Salvator Rosa, Human Frailty (detail)

Thursday – New Year’s Eve

Scrolling through Better Living through Beowulf to find a representative post for this past year, I knew it had to be Covid related. I thought about choosing the essay on Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (March 16) because few other stories seem to capture America’s response better. Harold Bloom once observed that Poe dreamt America’s nightmares (Stephen King is his modern day heir in this), and in Prince Prospero’s reactive wall and his frantic ball, he captures perfectly our penchant for denial. (Masque wearing didn’t save anyone in this instance.) Far too many Americans have been surprised when the killer dressed in red has tapped them on the shoulder.

Instead, however, I chose an April 19 essay that surveys how literature in general has handled plagues, starting with the Greeks. While literature may not be able to save us from pandemics, at the very least it gives us a handle for thinking about them. Such thinking could have focused the minds of policy makers and the public both, leading to far fewer deaths.

Reprinted from April 19, 2020

The search for meaning becomes urgent in times of crisis, and for much of history this search has occurred within a religious context. Although many started looking for secular answers following the scientific revolution, the search itself has remained constant. By surveying literature’s handling of the plague over the centuries, we get some perspective on our own search for meaning.

Sophocles’s Oedipus (429 BCE) sends his brother-in-law to the Delphic Oracle to inquire about the cause of a plague that has struck Thebes. It so happens that the gods are punishing the city because Oedipus has unknowingly violated foundational taboos. The plague comes to the end only when Oedipus is driven from the city.

The plague that shows up in The Aeneid (29-19 BCE) alerts Aeneas that he and his father have misinterpreted an oracle. They thought they were to begin their new enterprise in Crete, but in fact they should plant their flag in Italy. The plague therefore sends them to sea again:

Our ships were no sooner hauled
onto dry land, our young crewmen busy with weddings,
plowing the fresh soil while I was drafting laws
and assigning homes, when suddenly, no warning,
out of some foul polluted quarter of the skies
a plague struck now, a heartrending scourge
attacking our bodies, rotting trees and crops,
one whole year of death . . .
Men surrendered their own sweet lives
or dragged their decrepit bodies on and on.
And the Dog Star scorched the green fields barren,
the grasses shriveled, blighted crops refused us food.

In both these instances, there’s something that can be done to defeat the plague: bring your lives more in alignment with divine will.

For Defoe, as I discussed yesterday, the plague is also believed to be sending messages. As a Puritan, the narrator of Journal of the Plague Year (1722) blames it on Charles II’s licentious reign, which was a reaction to England’s 18-year experiment with a Puritan republic. The plague, he observes, gets Charles’s Court to clean up its act (albeit only temporarily):

[T]he very Court, which was then gay and luxurious, put on a face of just concern for the public danger. All the plays and interludes which, after the manner of the French Court, had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppet-shows, rope-dancers, and such-like doings, which had bewitched the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade; for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people. Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.

While narrator H.F. is convinced that God is sending messages, however, some scientific thinking has also crept into his world view. Therefore, he’s skeptical that a comet foretold the plague:

I saw both these stars, and, I must confess, had so much of the common notion of such things in my head, that I was apt to look upon them as the forerunners and warnings of God’s judgements; and especially when, after the plague had followed the first, I yet saw another of the like kind, I could not but say God had not yet sufficiently scourged the city.

But I could not at the same time carry these things to the height that others did, knowing, too, that natural causes are assigned by the astronomers for such things, and that their motions and even their revolutions are calculated, or pretended to be calculated, so that they cannot be so perfectly called the forerunners or foretellers, much less the procurers, of such events as pestilence, war, fire, and the like.

Then H.F. encounters the same problem Aeneas does: even when God sends warnings, it’s not clear how we should respond. For instance, he is in a quandary whether he should trust in God and stay in London or trust in God to look after his possessions while he leaves. He sees it one way, his brother another:

It immediately followed in my thoughts, that if it really was from God that I should stay, He was able effectually to preserve me in the midst of all the death and danger that would surround me; and that if I attempted to secure myself by fleeing from my habitation, and acted contrary to these intimations, which I believe to be Divine, it was a kind of flying from God, and that He could cause His justice to overtake me when and where He thought fit.

His brother, who wants him to leave, applies the same argument but concludes from it that he should head for the country:

He told me the same thing which I argued for my staying, viz., that I would trust God with my safety and health, was the strongest repulse to my pretensions of losing my trade and my goods; ‘for’, says he, ‘is it not as reasonable that you should trust God with the chance or risk of losing your trade, as that you should stay in so eminent a point of danger, and trust Him with your life?’

H.F. stays and, in the end, gives up trying to figure out the divine meaning of the plague. For some reason, he has survived, and for that he thanks God. He never achieves the clarity that one finds in Sophocles and Virgil, however.

Writing 200 years later, Katherine Anne Porter doesn’t overtly reflect on the greater significance of the 1918 influenza that somehow spares the protagonist but not her lover in the autobiographical novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939). The story, however, emphasizes the arbitrariness of the disease.

With 20th century existentialism, we enter into the possibility that there is no transcendent meaning to cataclysm and that life is consequently absurd. This vision is at the heart of Camus’s La Peste (1947).

Yet Camus concedes that we cannot live without vision and concludes that, even if life is indeed meaningless, we still must proceed as though meaning exists. In his case, he finds this meaning in our common humanity, which somehow persists in spite of all that confronts us.

Stephen King comes to a similar conclusion in The Stand (1978). The survivors of a flu strain that has escaped the biological weapons lab divide into two groups, the good and the evil. By having the good guys win, King concludes, like Camus, that humans have more positive in them than negative.

Emily St. John Mandel grapples with existential “meaning of life” issues in Station Eleven (2014), where we watch a traveling group of actors and musicians attempt to find meaning in the face of an influenza that has wiped out most of the earth’s population. In their case, they turn to Art—to music, Shakespeare, and a mysterious, privately published graphic novel. They regard Art as an undefined higher need, critical because “survival is insufficient.” Humans need more than food, shelter, and safety, and in that need is something transcendent.

We see someone constructing higher meaning in Margaret Atwood’s Oryk and Crake. Jimmy is tasked with helping a new race develop a mythology following a pandemic engineered by his friend Crake. A brilliant genetic engineer, Crake plays God by exterminating humanity—most humans, anyway–and creating a new environmentally sensitive race to take their place. Jimmy tells the “Crakers” origin stories—how Crake created them, what his design was—and the stories come to give their lives direction and purpose. In this mythology, Crake’s girlfriend Oryk becomes a sustaining mother goddess.

I mention one other work, Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (1988)where devastating illness threatens to overwhelm the Anishinaabe Indians in 1912. In the account of village elder Nanapush, the tribe and their spirits, already under unrelenting assault by white culture, barely survive:

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die. For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.

…This disease was different from the pox and fever, for it came on slow. The outcome, however, was just as certain. Whole families of your relatives lay ill and helpless in its breath. On the reservation, where we were forced close together, the clans dwindled. Our tribe unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either end as the old and new among us were taken.

Later, Nanapush records mentions “windigo” as a secondary cause of death, windigo being an evil spirit who cannibalistically possesses human beings:

We had gone half windigo. I learned later that this was common, that there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness. There were those who could not swallow another bite of food because the names of their dead anchored their tongues.

And yet Nanapush and his adopted daughter Fleur, bolstered by their tribe’s protective spirits, keep fighting for survival and never entirely succumb. As in Porter, Camus, and Mandel, we watch in awe at how humans rise to the occasion in even the direst of circumstances.

Whether or not you believe in Zeus, Jupiter, God, the Anishinaabe lake spirit Misshepeshu, or the secular human spirit, they unleash survival powers within humans that can surprise us. There is more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in our everyday philosophy, and we can draw strength and courage from that knowledge as we struggle with our current pandemic.

X https://betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/a-literary-survey-of-what-plagues-mean/

Posted in Atwood (Margaret), Camus (Albert), Defoe (Daniel), Erdrich (Louise), King (Stephen), Mandel (Emily St. John), Porter (Katherine Anne), Sophocles, Virgil | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus and the Egyptian Gods

Hathor

Wednesday

Here’s a lovely end-of-the-year poem that gets at how multiple cultures have used religious symbols to capture the triumph of life over death. The occasion is Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of the innocents, but Christianity is far from the only religion to find significance in the darkest days of the year. In fact, Christianity borrowed freely from a multitude of religions to capture the immensity of the occasion.

Scott Bates imagines the Holy Family traveling through the lands of the Zoroastrian god Mithra (god of light) and Dionysus (earth god), two gods who show up in the nativity scene as the ox and the ass.  They then reach Egypt, which includes two sky gods, the falcon god Horus and the goddess Hathor, either Horus’s mother or consort and daughter of the sun god Ra. She is also known as the “sovereign of the stars” and is connected with the star Sirius. (Think of role played by Bethlehem’s star.)

 Jesus’s family also travels beneath gaze of the sphinx of Gizreh, who guards the realm of the dead, and past a temple of Isis, a fertility goddess associated with the dove (also a nativity scene participant) who is connected with women and children. In other words, we see represented the polarities of sky and earth and death and life.

The journey into the west has mythic resonance in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, where pilgrims in search of sacred texts would undergo suffering to achieve wisdom.  The flight to and return from Egypt also echoes Judaism’s account of the Israelites’ journey there under Jacob and their return under Moses.

I’m not sure of the significance of the unicorn in the final line but it may have to do with Christianity’s insistence that there is only one god. All religions draw on other religions, however—it’s called syncretism—even the ones that claim to have a monopoly on truth. In my opinion, to think of Mary as a Hathor or Isis figure and of Jesus as a solar god doesn’t detract but rather adds to the power of the nativity story.

For me, the poem captures the mystery of this time of year. The days may be short, but we are promised new life. It’s a vision that should enthrall us all:

Flight into Egypt

The falcon’s eye above the pyramid
Moves with the weary travelers far below,
The queen, her consort, and the solar god,
As through the desert on their beast they go

Beneath the sphinx of Gizeh guarding the dead,
Past Isis in her temple nursing her child,
Her silver serpent turning his diamond head
To see them riding westward, into the wild

Land of Mithra and Dionysus, far
From the stable and the kings of Behtlehem,
No dove above them like a guiding star--
But Hathor on the horizon watching them,

Her forehead crowned with stars and double horn,
As they ride towards her on their unicorn.

Other Scott Bates on Christmas’s syncretistic origins
A Solution to Nativity Scene Battles
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Nativity

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Scrooge, a GOP Hero

Tuesday

During the Reagan presidency (in 1983) I remember being shocked when Attorney General Ed Meese came to the defense of Scrooge, arguing that he “had a bad press in his time. If you really look at the facts, he didn’t exploit Bob Cratchit.” Now conservatives make such arguments so frequently that former Senator Phil Gramm and lobbyist Mike Solon, writing “In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed by World” for the Wall Street Journal, elicits  no more than a resigned shrug.

Meese was part of an administration that was (among other things) targeting free lunch programs and arguing for such cost-cutting measures as redefining ketchup as a vegetable. His argument was that

Cratchit earned 10 shillings a week, a good wage at the time, his family could enjoy a good Christmas meal, and he was fortunate to be able to read and write because there was no public education at the time in which the story was set, the 1840s.

No word about Tiny Tim’s eventual death due to the lack of affordable health care:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Amazingly, we’ve been hearing a version of this “surplus population” argument from some on the right regarding the Covid crisis. Laissez faire herd immunity (No more than two million killed, tops!) would involve culling the elderly and unhealthy, many of whom are conveniently people of color. But back to the Gramm and Solon article.

I rely on an account of the piece by Graham Dockery of Irish public television since I don’t have a WSJ subscription:

[T]he pair argued that Scrooge would have served society better had he hung onto his wealth and used it to fund Britain’s industrial output, which, when Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843, had already made Britain the world’s only superpower.

“Scrooge’s wealth accumulation would have benefited far more people than anything he gave to charity after his reclamation, and many times more than the government would have helped had they taken his wealth and spent it,” the pair wrote.

Gramm and Solon describe Ebenezer as a prototypical magnate, the kind who oversaw Britain’s transition from a rural society to an urban one. Between 1840 and 1900, they pointed out, wages nearly tripled, life expectancy rose by 20 percent while the mortality rate plummeted, and children – who, a century earlier, had risked life and limb in Britain’s first factories – were enrolling in school in ever-growing numbers.

I have voiced my own disagreements with Dickens’s approach to social reform, which relies on rich people turning benevolent rather than oppressed workers uniting to demand better conditions. Dickens focuses on the Cratchit family and a few charities while, in Hard Times, he excoriates trade unions for exerting pressure on factory owners. The mob violence depicted in Barnaby Rudge and Tale of Two Cities shows us Dickens’s view of the oppressed taking charge of their own fate.

While I disagree with Dickens’s politics, however, I don’t question his heart. I do question Gramm, Solon and many of America’s upper class being willing to support a sociopath for president on the grounds that he keeps their taxes low. Pre-reform Scrooge would fit right in and, although he is stingy with his money, I can imagine him–out of self interest–contributing to Trump’s reelection campaign.

Dockery, incidentally, points out that it was not laissez faire capitalism that improved the living standards of 19th century Bob Cratchits:

[Th]e Scrooges of the day didn’t always make the lives of their workers better by choice. Trade unions were legalized only in 1871. The government, not factory owners, mandated health & safety and sanitation rules in factories in 1866, and it would be another eight years after that until the employment of children under 10 in textile factories was outlawed.

Dockery also does the math, noting that our modern-day Scrooges dwarf the original one:

Scrooge’s profession isn’t mentioned in the story, but we do know that Cratchit was a clerk. Working in one of the better-paying banks at the time, he could have hoped to bring home an annual salary of £60. Meanwhile, bank owner James ‘Jemmy’ Wood – a Scrooge-like character known as ‘The Gloucester Miser’ – died in 1836 leaving a fortune of £900,000, at the time making him Britain’s wealthiest commoner.

The average worker at Amazon last year made $28,836, while CEO Jeff Bezos sits on a fortune of $199.7 billion. That’s nearly seven million times the average yearly wage at Amazon. By contrast, Wood’s net worth in 1836 was just 15,000 times more than a London bank clerk’s salary.

We are currently undergoing a Christmas where millions are unemployed and in danger of losing their homes, where long lines form to pick up groceries, and where many are sick and dying of Covid. Republicans, who ran up the debt to a trillion dollars with their generous tax cuts for the rich, are now squawking that a $600 relief check for average Americans will bust the budget. No wonder Wall Street Journal columnists are defending Scrooge.

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Trump & Chaucer’s Pardoner, Both Corrupt

Chaucer’s Pardoner

Monday

Donald Trump really does pervert everything he touches. We are in the season of forgiveness so, on the one hand, he hands out pardons like a mob boss and, on the other, speeds up executions. One of those executed was a man who, while present during a murder, didn’t actually pull the trigger. Even members of his jury felt he didn’t deserve the death penalty. 

My friend Glenda Funk suggested comparing him to Chaucer’s Pardoner, an excellent idea. For good measure, I also compare him to the Pardoner’s execrable friend and companion, the Summoner.

Trump has been pardoning war criminals, Republican grifters, and people who have committed perjury to cover up for him. Undoubtedly more pardons are on their way, including preemptive pardons for his family, his close associates, and possibly even for himself. According to Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith and Lawfare blog’s Matthew Gluck, “The vast majority of the 94 people who have received clemency from Trump have a personal or political connection to him.”

The Pardoner is one of Chaucer’s most reprehensible pilgrims. He makes his living selling indulgences, which is to say, papal pardons. Since most people seeking forgiveness couldn’t see the pope directly, the system of indulgences was devised. The pardoners who sold them kept a cut for themselves while remanding the rest to Rome. The system was so corrupt and such a cash drain on parts of the Holy Roman Empire that it contributed to the German princes supporting Martin Luther’s breakaway movement.

The Pardoner is a conman worthy of Trump. Noted for his flamboyant hair, he passes off pigs’ bones as though they were saints’ relics to draw in penitents. As a result, he makes far more than the Parson, one of Chaucer’s exemplary pilgrims:

And in a glass container he had pigs’ bones.
But with these relics, when he found
A poor parson dwelling in the countryside,
In one day he got himself more money
Than the parson got in two months;
And thus, with feigned flattery and tricks,
He made fools of the parson and the people.

For contrast’s sake, here’s Chaucer’s Parson, who knows who he is working for. Think of him as the equivalent of the public servant who puts country over self:

He knew how to have sufficiency in few possessions.                 
His parish was wide, and houses far apart,  
But he did not omit, for rain nor thunder, 
In sickness or in trouble to visit                 
Those living farthest away in his parish, high-ranking and low,                 
Going by foot, and in his hand a staff.                 
He gave this noble example to his sheep, 
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.                 
He took those words out of the gospel,
And this metaphor he added also to that,  
That if gold rust, what must iron do?                 
For if a priest, on whom we trust, should be foul                 
It is no wonder for a layman to go bad;
And it is a shame, if a priest is concerned:                 
A shit-stained shepherd and a clean sheep.                 
Well ought a priest to give an example, 
By his purity, how his sheep should live.

The Pardoner is particularly Trump-like in the openness of his grift. Just as Trump sold “Trump Steaks” without bothering to remove the previous labels, so the Pardoner openly admits to his fellow pilgrims that his relics are fakes. And like Trump in 2016 openly boasting of cheating the system, the Pardoner wants to be admired for his craftiness:

My theme is always the same, and ever was —                
‘Greed is the root of all evil.’                
First I pronounce from whence I come,                
And then my papal bulls I show, each and every one.                
Our liege lord’s seal on my letter of authorization,           
I show that first, to protect my body,                
So that no man be so bold, neither priest nor clerk,                
To hinder me from (doing) Christ’s holy work.                
And after that then I tell forth my tales;                
Indulgences of popes and of cardinals,                
Of patriarchs and bishops I show,                
And in Latin I speak a few words,                
With which to add spice to my preaching,                
And to stir them to devotion.                
Then I show forth my long crystal stones,                
Crammed full of rags and of bones —                
Relics they are, as suppose they each one.

The Pardoner delights in showing how he bamboozles his suckers—or as Trump calls them, “the poorly educated”:

By this trick have I won, year after year,                
An hundred marks since I was pardoner.                
I stand like a clerk in my pulpit,                
And when the ignorant people are set down,                
I preach as you have heard before                
And tell a hundred more false tales.                
Then I take pains to stretch forth the neck,                
And east and west upon the people I nod,                
As does a dove sitting on a barn.                
My hands and my tongue go so quickly                
That it is joy to see my business.                
Of avarice and of such cursedness                
Is all my preaching, to make them generous                
To give their pennies, and namely unto me.                
For my intention is only to make a profit,                
And not at all for correction of sin.                
I care not a bit, when they are buried,                
Though their souls go picking blackberries!

Most impressive is the way the Pardoner then goes on practice his grift on the very pilgrims with whom he has shared his trade secrets. Following a magnificent story about avarice—one of Chaucer’s best—he targets his fellows. Suddenly the pigs’ bones have become saints’ bones again:

If any of you will, of devotion,                
Offer and have my absolution,                
Come forth straightway, and kneel down here,                
And meekly receive my pardon…
I advise that our Host here shall begin,                
For he is most enveloped in sin.                
Come forth, sir Host, and offer first right now,                
And thou shall kiss the relics every one,                
Yea, for a fourpence coin! Unbuckle thy purse right now.

The Pardoner should have chosen a meeker pilgrim. Would that Republicans took a page from the Innkeeper’s response:

Thou would make me kiss thine old underpants,                
And swear it was a relic of a saint,                
Though it were stained by thy fundament!                
But, by the cross that Saint Helen found,                
I would I had thy testicles in my hand                
Instead of relics or a container for relics.                
Have them cut off, I will help thee carry them;                
They shall be enshrined in a hog’s turd!”

Whew!

I add the Summoner because, like Trump, he has two systems of justice for his own pardon system. A medieval police officer who is charged with summoning law breakers to court,he will allow a man to keep his concubine with a wine bribe or escape excommunication with a hefty sum. “A man’s soul [is] in his purse” is how he puts it:

For a quart of wine he would allow                 
A good fellow to have his concubine                 
For twelve months, and excuse him completely;                 
Secretly he also knew how to pull off a clever trick.                 
And if he found anywhere a good fellow,                 
He would teach him to have no awe                 
Of the archdeacon’s curse (of excommunication) in such a case,                 
Unless a man’s soul were in his purse;                 
For in his purse he would be punished.                 
“Purse is the archdeacon’s hell,” he said.                 

He also employs secret information to exert control over young people, perhaps to exact sexual favors:

In his control he had as he pleased                 
The young folk of the diocese,                 
And knew their secrets, and was the adviser of them all.

In other words, despite our having a democratic republic constructed upon such enlightenment principles as the rule of law and public accountability, it has taken no more than one man and a complicit party to return us to the Middle Ages. Chaucer would have had a field day with our president.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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